QB Payton Thorne's splendid mop-up job lends lone bright spot in dismal Spartans' day

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – Rocky Lombardi got knocked out of Saturday’s game because of an injury, but whether he returns to the starting lineup next week might have less to do with his health than the fact his backup turned in another promising performance.

Lombardi, who has started all six games this season, was hit hard in the second quarter on a sack and left the game, heading to the locker room with the training staff. In stepped redshirt freshman Payton Thorne, who pumped some life into an otherwise stagnant offense during No. 3 Ohio State’s 52-12 victory at Spartan Stadium.

Michigan State's Payton Thorne throws late in the fourth  quarter.

While the offense sputtered for much of the first half, Thorne completed his first 11 passes and eventually scored the first touchdown of his career, finding the end zone on a 20-yard run after hitting Jayden Reed with a 55-yard pass down the sideline. He credited his playing time against Indiana two games ago for putting him in position against Ohio State.

“Yeah, I definitely think that time helped coming before today,” Thorne said, “getting out there and getting some of those first real snaps under your belts and kind of feeling the speed of the game, the tempo of the game and that kind of stuff. So, I definitely think that helped prepare me for today.”

Thorne finished 16-for-25 for 147 yards with one interception and also ran for 42 yards on nine attempts. He finished with 189 total yards, accounting for all but 72 of Michigan State’s total yards on the day.

“There were some good things, obviously,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said of Thorne. “We were able to move the ball. We weren't able to sustain drives consistently, but we were able to move the ball at spurts. We need to be able to build on those things that we do well, just like every week. But spurts are not gonna get it. You can't play in sections, you can't play in spurts. You’ve got to have consistent performance, and it's not just up to one guy.”

It’s not, but Thorne has proven each time he’s in the game that he’s capable of moving the offense.

The next step is putting points on the board, something that Thorne admits is the only thing that matters.

“If you don't score on offense, then who cares if you have 500 yards if you only score 10 points?” Thorne said. “You can rack up as many yards as you want, but if you're not scoring, then you're not doing anything.”

As for Lombardi, Tucker didn’t give an update on his status, only to say he was, “banged up.” Of course, that’s what he says for every injury.

Thorne said he’ll keep preparing how he always does as Michigan State gets set to head to Penn State next week.

“It’s up to the coaches what they think and who they think has the best skill set that fits our offense,” Thorne said. “So I'm gonna keep showing up and doing what I do and playing how I play and I'm gonna keep competing. That’s all I know how to do and it's all I can do.”

National Review playbook

Tucker talks often about being relentless, but on Saturday, there were plenty of signs the Spartans were playing conservatively.

From calling for fair catches on multiple short kickoffs to the decision to punt on a handful of fourth downs with the Spartans trailing in the game, the decisions made had a conservative feel.

One fourth-down call, in particular, was curious.

With Michigan State trailing 28-0, its first drive of the second half was moving along well. But after the drive stalled at the Ohio State 42 and facing a fourth-and-6, Tucker opted to punt. Five plays later, Ohio State scored again to take a 35-0 lead.

“If I thought we could get it, I would have gone for it,” Tucker said. “I’ve shown that I’ll go for it on fourth down before. So, if we think that we can get it, then we'll go. If we think it's better for us to try to pooch it and punt or whatever, then we'll do that. It's based on a set of circumstances, but there's not a fear factor involved. It's just a decision.

“So it’s easy to sit back in air conditioning and say, ‘We should have went for it, or we didn't go for it.’ That's part of the deal. We didn't go for it, and so we punt. Sometimes we go for it, sometimes we make it and sometimes we don't. But I didn't look at it as being conservative. That’s for you to decide.”

Reduced roster 

Michigan State was down a few players, too, though it was hardly the 23 the Buckeyes were missing.

Defensive tackle Jalen Hunt was out after hurting his lower leg last week while wide receiver Ricky White and tight end Trenton Gillison missed a second straight game each. During the game, Lombardi and cornerback Kalon Gervin both got hurt and did not return to the game.

The Spartans did get a couple of players back as tight end Matt Dotson played for the first time since the Michigan game in week two. Running back Jordon Simmons was also back in uniform after being out last week, but he did not play.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau